A Cochrane family is grappling to come to terms with the loss of their son and brother while students, staff and families of Bow Valley High School are mourning the loss and working toward regaining a sense of normalcy.
Last week, eighteen-year-old Zachary Allen, a Grade 12 student, took his own life after a battle with mental illness. He was found in the evening of Dec. 4 by his father, Terry Allen.
Though grieving and in shock, Terry expressed frustration over his son’s death, which he said could have been prevented.
“He was only seven days into being 18 years old, ” he said sadly.
Both his sister, Sarah, and Terry told the Cochrane Eagle that Zachary had been struggling with mental illness for some time but recently it took a sharp turn for the worse.
“My brother was going through some issues, he obviously had mental health problems and my dad took him to the hospital, ” Sarah said.
After staying at the Foothills Hospital Adolescent Mental Health Unit, Sarah said he was released because he was neither sharing any information with the doctors and nor was he taking his medications.
Terry asked the hospital multiple times to keep him, telling the doctors he didn’t believe his son was ready to return home.
“I talked ‘til i was blue in the face, I got angry there. They said ‘we made our decision, pick him up Friday,’ ” Terry said.
A few days after being released Zachary had a breakdown at school, which led the principal to call an ambulance. He was kept for several hours and by 9 p.m. Zachary was released. Terry said he was working at the time and was unable to pick him up until around 5 a.m. Zachary spent the duration in the waiting room. He took his life three days later.
“Two times they let him go. And the second time he gave up on them. I think he thought there’s no help for me whatsoever, ” Terry said. “I can’t bring my son back and I tried to get him help and that’s what’s so frustrating. ”
Alberta Health Services (AHS), which operates Foothills Hospital, could not comment directly on the case, extended its sympathies to all families who have lost loved ones to suicide in a written statement.
“Suicide and depression among other mental health issues are difficult for families and individuals. It can be complex and vary from person to person. We understand the importance of providing patients affected by mental illness with the care and services they require, when they need it and empathize with family members and caregivers seeking treatment for loved ones and who advocate on their behalf. ”
AHS explained that patients who come to the emergency department with mental health concerns are triaged similarly to patients presenting with physical illness or injury. Patients with urgent needs, such as those who may pose an immediate threat to themselves, receive urgent care.
AHS added that while offering mental health services is a priority, addressing suicide awareness and prevention is also just as important.
“AHS is continuously working on awareness and prevention in hopes of reducing the number of suicides, ” the statement read.
The Tuesday morning following Zachary’s death, a team of five counsellors and psychologists were brought into the school to help students and staff members cope with the news.
Academic content was put on hold for the morning so students could take the time to grieve, speak with teachers and counsellors and connect with their friends and family. Those that were particularly affected and emotional were permitted to be picked up by their parents or guardians.
Chris Pawluk, Rocky View Schools lead psychologist, said teachers were prepped with a guide to better answer the inevitable but tough questions the students may have surrounding the event.
“Talking about these kind of events in an appropriate way is helpful in reducing other students’ risk of suicide, ” he said. “We wanted staff to be reasonably calm, though many were impacted by the death as well. ”
Pawluk said the most immediate way to help students who are struggling to cope is to reconnect them to their social support network.
“One of the risk factors we look out for is the kid to isolate themselves from their friends and family, ” he said adding they took care to speak with students who were sitting alone and check-in with them.
The most common feelings students may have aside from sadness may be guilt and anger.
“It’s OK to experience those emotions and it’s OK to be confused about them and the best thing you can do is talk to your friends and family about that, ” he said, also mentioning that explaining to adolescents that thoughts of suicide are normal but seeking help immediately is crucial.
“Something like 15 per cent of kids in high school have seriously considered a suicide attempt and eight per cent have at least attempted it in a least a half measure, ” said Pawluk.
“The student in question was getting intensive support from us and other places, and that didn’t seem to be enough in this case so we need to review that. Early intervention is what we need to take away from this case. We really need to start looking for the signs and the redflags for a significant mental health concern much younger – elementary and middle school. ”
Zachary Allen’s funeral service will be held on Saturday.
If you, a friend or loved one is struggling with mental illness seek help and call the mental health help line at 1-877-303-2642. For immediate help, call 911.